By Sam Eyoboka
THE crisis rocking the Ahiara Mbaise Catholic Diocese has taken a new twist with the American branch of the Diocesan Laity Council Worldwide writing a letter to Pope’s Francis to debunk claims that their opposition to Bishop Peter Okpalaeke was as a result of a desire to have an indigenous bishop.
A letter signed by 191 Mbaise indigenes resident in the Diaspora on behalf of the Ahiara Diocese Worldwide Laity Council and titled “The Ahiara Episcopal Grab” averred that their opposition was rather spoiling for a priest from Ahiara Presbyterium as prescribed by the code of canon law (Can. 377 §2),.
The group under the aegis of global network of Catholics with roots and or relationship traceable to the Ahiara Presbyterium, of Nigeria, constituted to promote the social and pastoral health of our members and the Diocese, using all resources available to us globally maintained that they were out to assist the Pontiff clean the rut in the Nigerian church.
According to the letter dated July 1, 2017 and made available to Vanguard, Monday, members of the Laity Council in Diaspora appealed to the Pontiff to reconsider his ultimatum to the Mbaise priests, arguing that due process was not followed in the selection and appointment of Bishop Okpalaeke.
“Ahiara Diocese rejects the violation of the canonical process that produced Bishop Okpalaeke. Can. 377 §2, provides guidance thus… ‘At least every three years, bishops of an ecclesiastical province or, where circumstances suggest it, of a conference of bishops, are in common counsel and in SECRET to compose a list of PRESBYTERS (which Okpalaeke is not), even including members of institutes of consecrated life, who are more suitable for the episcopate.’
“They are to send it to the Apostolic See, without prejudice to the right of each bishop individually, to make known to the Apostolic See the names of PRESBYTERS (which Okpalaeke is not) whom he considers worthy of and suited to the Episcopal function.”
“It is unlikely the late Bishop Victor Chikwe recommended Msgnr Peter Okpalaeke, since he had no relationship whatsoever with the Presbyterium, one therefore wonders how did he then emerge, and over 21 recommendations secretly and legitimately made by Chikwe during his 21-year tenure, to the Holy See?” the letter stated.
Tracing the genesis of the unending crisis, the Laity Council with Secretariat in the US, said on December 7, 2012, “Pope Benedict XVI appointed Monsignor Peter Okpalaeke of Awka Diocese in Anambra State, as the Bishop-elect of the Episcopal See of Ahiara Mbaise Diocese.
“Fr. Okpalaeke is to replace His Lordship, beloved Late Most Rev. Dr. Victor .A. Chikwe, who passed away on September 16, 2010. The clergy and laity of the Diocese have since rejected his posting and refused to give him, canonical possession of the Ahiara Diocese— a right accorded it by the code of canon law (Can. 382 §1/382 §3), on the following grounds:
”Ahiara Diocese detests ‘nepotism in the selection of Bishops. It is unacceptable for Cardinal Francis Arinze to derail the code of canonical law, disqualify an entire state of candidates of Ahiara Presbyterium, in order to grab an additional episcopal see, for an Onitsha Ecclesiastical Province, that already has eight bishops and one cardinal.”
They further opposed the neglect of Pastoral obligations as required by the code of canon law (Can. 383-400), since his appointment five years ago, is a clear sign that Bishop Okpalaeke and his representative John Cardinal Onaiyekan, appointed to administer the Diocese in his stead, do not care for the flock of God in Ahiara Diocese.
“We have been so starved of the Sacraments of Confirmation and Ordination; and all Pastoral obligations reserved to the Bishops. They have come to slaughter and destroy (John 10:10a).
“A lot of ‘polluted water’ has passed under the bridge in the Bishop Okpalaeke crisis, which has incapacitated him to efficiently administer the Diocese. He and Cardinal Onaiyekan have so intimidated the Diocese with the use of lies, military and police force to impose injustice on Ahiara.
“The code of canon law Can.401 § 2 states that: ‘A diocesan bishop who has become less able to fulfill his office because of ill health or some other grave cause is earnestly requested to present his resignation from office.”
They therefore urged Bishop Okpalaeke to immediately resign or be reassigned, because, according to them, he has made the flock to scatter and run away (John 10:5), stressing that “his name alone brings anger, fear and disaffection to the people.”
The Ahiara Diocesan Laity Worldwide told the Pope that they were not out to disobey his directive, but rather “we are helping him in reforming the Church, making sure that people do not commit ecclesiastical crimes in his name.
“The grievances of the Diocese are strong, justified and deserve a fair hearing, by his Holiness Pope Francis, especially for the potential disruptive impact on evangelization globally. It is worthy of note that Ahiara Diocese has, about 750 priests, who trace their origin to the Presbyterium.
“Since the establishment of the Diocese in 1987, there have been at least 167 priestly ordinations for the Diocese. The Diocese is currently served by 127 priests and 113 religious, according to Vatican source.
“With such a wealth of priests, the Ahiara diocese has sent more than its share of missionaries around the world, and yes, has contributed to the universality of the church and sure can differentiate it from lawlessness,” they stated.